First Amendment alert: bill in U.S. Congress gives money to rebuild storm-damaged churches

A piece in yesterday’s New York Times,  the American House of Representatives has overwhelmingly approved a bill (see link below) to allow government money to be used for repairing houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

The bill, approved last week by a vote of 354 to 72, had support from Roman Catholic and Jewish organizations. It was opposed by 66 Democrats and 6 Republicans.

(Passage in the Senate, which is necessary to bring the bill to Obama for signing into law, isn’t yet assured.)

The disparity in political parties here is no surprise: Republicans are more often faith-heads. But what happened to religious organizations favoring the separation of church and state? Oh, right—that goes out the window if every faith can benefit equally.

This is, indeed, a violation of the First Amendment, for it uses taxpayer money to fix churches, and that’s a benefit to the church.  Churches already enjoy benefits that I consider a violation of the Constitution: ministers’ housing for instance, is tax free, while Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, though they run a nonprofit secular organization, don’t get tax-free housing. And neither should I, as an atheist, have to pay to fix up a storm-damaged church. Isn’t such damage, after all, an “act of God”?

The House bill adds houses of worship to the list of private nonprofit organizations eligible for disaster relief. Federal law already allows such aid to museums, zoos, performing-arts centers, libraries, homeless shelters and other private nonprofit entities that provide “essential services of a governmental nature to the general public.”

The House bill would apply to property damaged by the storm and damage from future disasters.

Under the bill, “a church, synagogue, mosque, temple or other house of worship, and a private nonprofit facility operated by a religious organization,” would be eligible for federal disaster assistance “without regard to the religious character of the facility or the primary religious use of the facility.”

Museums, zoos, libraries, and homeless shelters are public goods, to which we all should contribute. Religion is not. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in charge of helping finance restoration of areas damaged by natural disasters, has historically refused to fix up houses of worship, except for those parts that provide social services. FEMA is opposed to this bill, too, on the ground that it would force them to make impossible decisions between “worship space” and “secular space”.  Does fixing up a roof, for example, protect only the secular parts of a church?

And here’s a distinction without a difference:

The speaker of the New York City Council, Christine C. Quinn, had unsuccessfully urged FEMA to change its regulations without legislation, writing in a letter to the agency: “Recovery from a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy isn’t a matter of state sponsoring religion. It’s a matter of helping those in need after one of the worst natural disasters our country has ever seen.”

Well, can’t churches and synagogues buy insurance like the rest of us?

In the end, it comes down to this:

But Representative Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, said: “This bill would direct federal taxpayer dollars to the reconstruction of houses of worship. The idea that taxpayer money can be used to build a religious sanctuary or an altar has consistently been held unconstitutional.”

The American Civil Liberties Union agreed, saying it was a bedrock principle of constitutional law that “taxpayer funds cannot go to construct, rebuild or repair buildings used for religious activities.”

This is just another attempt to breach the American wall between church and state, and give unconscionable and unconstitutional privilege to religion.

If you choose to write or call your Senator, who will be voting on the bill soon, you can find his/her contact information here; the bill is H. R. 592. I expect that the Freedom from Religion Foundation will have something to say about this.

In other news, a cat and a DVD drive fought to a standstill.


  1. Veroxitatis
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I would doubt that the various Government emergency funding schemes in the UK would cover this sort of damage and rebuilding where it could reasonably be expected that insurance would have been in place. However the extent to which local authorities could assist is discretionary subject to vires challenges from local rate payers.
    I do think however that a distinction would be made between listed buildings (ie. buildings of architectural and / or historical merit) and other buildings. Our cathedrals and many churches (some even Saxon)would fall into this category. Does the USA or any of the States have similar listing systems? If so, then perhaps the purpose for which the building is used may not be the the major criterion for financial assistance.

    • cornbread_r2
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 1:53 am | Permalink

      In the past the National Park Service was permitted to do restoration/preservation work on historically significant church structures provided there were no regular services and no active congregation. I suspect that’s still the policy.

    • el_slapper
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 2:07 am | Permalink

      As a french living next to a magnificent churche of the XIII century, I would be shocked to see historical buildings NOT rebuild by the state.

      That being said, is there a lot of churches of historical interest in the States?(as I have no clue) as everyone here, I think others can be left to rubble.

  2. alexandra
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Some of the major religions in the USA:
    Anglican | Catholic | Evangelical | Jehovah’s Witnesses | Latter-day Saints | Orthodox | Pentecostal
    Islam | Hinduism | Buddhism | Sikhism | Judaism | Baha’i | Zoroastrianism ….and somewhere in the list, according to the IRS, would be Scientology, which, I have read, has a large complex in Clearwater, Florida.

    So these all pay no taxes? And get disaster repairs via the tax payer? The Congress needs to rethink any approval of financial support
    for houses of worship. You think?

  3. marycanada FCD
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Wow, the vote wasn’t even close!

  4. gbjames
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Wait till the right wing xtians find out they are paying to build mosques.

  5. eric
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Museums, zoos, libraries, and homeless shelters are public goods, to which we all should contribute.

    These are private non-profits. I.e. private zoos. Private libraries. Some rich guy’s art collection, which he occasionally opens to the public for a modest entry fee, would probably count. Arguably none of these things should be getting taxpayer money, because private ownership means they have the right to restrict public access in ways that do not serve the public interest. But if you’re going to give money to one,then you should come up with neutral criteria for who gets what and let religious nonprofits apply just like anyone else.

    Now I know money is fungible, but I’d probably be fine with neutral criteria such as “for rebuilding foundations and structures, not for purchases related to the collection.” The city inspector says you need to replace hurricane-damaged drywall? Sure. You want to buy a new cross for your steeple, or replace your ‘private library’ first edition of Mark Twain? No; that’s on you.

    • gbjames
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      The important constitutional distinction is NOT public/private. It is religious/secular. The state must not be in the business of providing recover funds for religious institutions for the same reason it should not be sending money to Catholic schools to subsidize their math classes.

      • eric
        Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        AFAIK voucher proglams like that have been found to be perfectly constitutional. They arguably even pass the lemon test. Teaching math has secular purpose? Check. Primary effect? Check. Entanglement? For some programs check, for others, bzzzt. Depends on the school and how clearly the secular vs religious functions are separated. Now, I think its a very bad idea. But I also think giving taxpayer recovery money to private nonprofits is probably generally a bad idea, too.

        To the orginal topic: many religious nonprofits try to do the right thing and set up separate organizational arms that are secular, for their charity work. Nonreligious sub-organizations, as it were. The books and finances will be separate from the religious parent organization yet they may use the same facilities and employ the same people. What do you do about them? What if Podunk Soup Kitchens, LLC wants funding to repair its building…which happens to be Our Mother of Bafflement Church?

        • gbjames
          Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          The shady slight-of-hand that lets vouchers get used at religious schools is that the money isn’t given to the institutions. It is given to the parents. So the state can cover its eyes and feign ignorance in the matter. My example was designed to be more direct… states can not simply give money to religious schools in support of programs, at least not at the grade school and high school levels. It is different at universities where all manner of federal money finds its way into the coffers.

          Podunk would, presumably, be in the situation of any renter of a building, in no position to be asking for funding for repair of the building. I’m assuming that building owners are the ones responsible for their buildings, no?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      These nonprofits get taxpayer money already. Government grants are an important source of revenue for such institutions (just as they are for private research universities). The government also loses tax revenue on private donations to nonprofits. The whole point of nonprofits is that they’re not in business to make money, but to serve a public good, for which they’re entitled to public support.

      And as part of the bargain, nonprofits that receive public funds must typically agree to open-access policies mandated by the granting agencies.

  6. neil
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    If Sandy damaged their churches, it is their own damn fault. Obviously they did not pray hard enough.

    • Posted February 20, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Destruction on this scale is an act of God. If God wanted these churches flattened so bad it seems perverse to pay tax dollars to rebuild them. Leave the ruins as a reminder to people that it is foolish to worship a wrathful God.

  7. still learning
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    Not only is this a blatant 1st Amendment breach, it also means that many victims of Sandy will go without housing. Every dollar given to restore a church is one dollar less available for homes. Allegedly, Christians are supposed to help the poor. Any church that applies for/accepts this money is proving they are not True Christians™.

    Loved the cat vs. DVD drive!

  8. Michael De Dora
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink


    Thank you for posting this article. The Center for Inquiry opposed H.R. 592 and via an action alert urged people to write their Representatives to vote it down. Obviously we were disappointed that it passed. We were just as disappointed to see so little coverage of a blatantly unconstitutional bill. It’s good to see the Times get on the story, and you blog about it.

    Interestingly enough, some secularists questioned CFI’s opposition to H.R. 592. In order to respond, I wrote a blog post explaining our position, which I think could be helpful to some people here:

    I would also suggest that people read this letter by Maggie Garrett of Americans United for Separation of Church and State:

    As for the prospects of H.R. 592 in the Senate: the bill has not yet been formally filed, but CFI, along with organizations such as AU, is tracking the bill and will be sure to let people know if and when the Senate takes it up.

  9. Dave
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Sent message to congressman (Paulsen) asking why he voted yea on this. Expect usual reply (i.e., dead silence).

  10. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    to allow government money to be used for repairing houses of worship damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

    That choice of phrase almost begs someone to try establishing a “House of Worship” … of Aphrodite, Eros, Agape, or even good old Shamhat. Or even the whole lot together.
    It might be worth dragging out the old “Luncheon Vouchers” trick to get around some of the more inconvenient laws in the area.

  11. Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    I started a petition at We the People. Please consider signing it. Thanks.

  12. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    “Well, can’t churches and synagogues buy insurance like the rest of us?”

    Indeed they can and do. Ergo, they shouldn’t need fedearal relief!!! GuideOne is a leading provider of building insurance to churches and other religious institutions. (I’m aware of this because Buddhist institutions generally have to exterminate termites to qualify for building insurance even though that’s against the stricter interpretation of the precepts. Likewise, those that provide food have to exterminate ants. They always “bite the bullet” and kill the insects so they can buy insurance.)

    “But what happened to religious organizations favoring the separation of church and state? Oh, right—that goes out the window if every faith can benefit equally”

    At least two religious organizations !*have*! opposed the bill, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and the Interfaith Alliance. The latter’s statement can be found here.

  13. Hamilton Jacobi
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    It’s a matter of helping those in need after one of the worst natural disasters our country has ever seen.

    Yes, not having a place to play “holier-than-thou” on Sunday morning is completely equivalent to not having food, clean water, shelter, and clothing.

  14. raven
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    The House bill would apply to property damaged by the storm and damage from future disasters.

    This is rather shocking.

    1. It applies to all future disasters. Which means churches don’t have to buy disaster insurance. It’s a subsidy to religion forever against fire, floods, wind storms, earthquakes, etc..

    2. I thought the GOP was the party of small government. Now they want taxpayer funds to support the churches. Bunch of hypocrites.

    3. I don’t see how this is constitutional at all.

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      The GOP is the party of small government, unless it is about a huge Homeland Security apparatus or bloated military or fossil fuel company subsidies or farm subsidies or vouchers for religious schools or …

      • Diane G.
        Posted February 21, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink


  15. Diane G.
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink


  16. Schenck
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Interesting that when it came to fixing up a Malankara Church in Staten Island, they rejected the idea of fixing it, but now that /their/ own churches have been damaged, the representatives make sure that funds are sent.

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